Relighting the Candle

By Renée E. D’Aoust

August 3, 2020

Relighting the Candle

The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion by Sonja Livingston

In Sonja Livingston’s The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, the author is drawn to explore her youth in the Catholic Church. She longs to return to the intertwined experience of childhood and faith when the two were inseparable. Drawn by this longing, which she heeds because it feels both sacred and mysterious rather than sentimental and maudlin, Livingston returns to her first church, Corpus Christi in Rochester, New York. She discovers that the Madonna statue she adored as a child has disappeared; this Madonna statue’s beauty epitomized Livingston’s devotional identity. Her search for this statue becomes intertwined with her adult return to Catholicism. The need to discover where the Madonna statue has gone—and what has taken its place, actual and symbolic—becomes the central quest of this memoir.

The return to Catholicism is part of a process. Livingston moves from past to present and back in fifteen chapters; she uses the essay form to enter and explore the Catholic faith, attend masses, meet old friends, and make new ones. On visits home to family in Rochester, she normally attends her husband’s family church, but their denomination neither provides enough mystery nor moves her soul. Throughout these essayistic explorations, she is also haunted by the history of the very institution to which she is drawn.

Although raised Catholic, as an adult, she begins sneaking into a rear pew during Catholic Mass, at Christmas and Easter, staying seated during Communion. Vexed, she refuses to be drawn back to an institution that is still beset by lies, misogyny, and violence. Livingston does not overlook the Church’s power imbalances between the curia and the laity; nevertheless, her halting return to organized religion gives her space to wrestle honestly with a shameful yet spiritual tradition that still draws her to its mystical rituals.

Livingston wrestles with belief, faith, and God alike. The word “God,” if not the idea, makes her uncomfortable, prickly: “For as far back as I can remember, whenever anyone said God I simply added an o in my head, converting it to the word good.” Livingston further reflects: “The word God is broken shorthand, a one-syllable exchange that tricks us into thinking we understand something of each other and how we see the world.”

God, Livingston comes to feel, is more than good. She writes: “What an impossible and lovely proposition—to attempt to build bridges with words to the mysterious expanse where language cannot join us.”

These enthralling essays are interspersed with interludes specifically focused on the search for the missing Madonna statue. Livingston invites readers to join her quest, a journey that befuddles her. The statue, which a parishioner tells her has been sold, symbolizes the less complicated faith of her youth; if she could find her Madonna, the symbol of her youth, she might reconnect with her faith, second-guessing herself less.

Livingston describes the way “the tangled mess of [her] heart” longs for the devotional receptacle a statue provides, especially a Madonna and “the perfect blue of her cloak” that she loved as a child. She feels the devotional pull physically in her body. She doesn’t want to be a child again, but she wants, I think, to experience faith in a childlike way, perhaps often as a physical, real manifestation of mystical, imagined experience. The body moves during a Catholic mass, and Livingston finds her body rising and kneeling as if she never forgot the choreography of prayer. Her body remembers the pre-conscious experience of childhood faith while her mind turns in knots from the force of her desire. Her body wants to walk forward to take communion; her mind holds her back.

Although many congregations have changed demographically and churches have closed or consolidated, her home church is still open, though attendance is much reduced. Empty pews mean Livingston’s search cannot be hidden because her need is exposed and shines brightly. She wonders:

Wasn’t waking early on Sunday mornings to attend the church on East Main and Prince Streets a giant step backward? Perhaps. But what appears to be a backward step is sometimes the only way forward, and the act of returning to anything was new to me.

Although an altar girl as a child—her folksy post-Vatican II Corpus Christi Catholic church allowed girls to serve—her devotion since then has been sporadic and unharnessed or left fallow. The adult Livingston recalls herself as a child: “while I came eagerly to Mass, served proudly at the altar, and noticed the way that people from the neighborhood perked up at church like wilted plants given doses of water and light, I was not—by even the most generous interpretation of the word—devout.”

Now, she realizes she desires less to find meaning than to understand her yearning for faith. Sometimes what is unexplainable is full of love. Her husband encourages the search, but initially she is drawn to the church of her impoverished youth for reasons that elude her. Still, her search for the Madonna statue makes sense; it’s real, tangible. But returning to the institution stained by abuse and scandal hardly makes sense. In this regard, the essay “Litany for a Dying Church” explores the “click of rosaries and creak of kneelers”:

If everyone on earth spit at the same time, we’d all drown, my friend Angie once announced on the way to Mass. My head went so soggy with the prospect and sheer calculations it’s taken four decades and a return to our old sanctuary to formulate a response: If everyone who ever set foot in this church sang a psalm at the same time, our hearts would become birds and fly straight into each other’s hands.

Livingston’s The Virgin of Prince Street is also a travelogue about devotion, necessarily visiting places along the way, but the journey always circles back to her congregation of origin and her quest to find the Madonna statue. While Livingston watches sacred parades and sits in new pews, she uses her research and trips to travel further into the farther reaches of her heart. Like any journey we take, we often find that what we thought was missing was with us all along. Indeed, it turns out, that her locus of faith was alive, inside Sonja Livingston, a candle demanding to be relit.

The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion by Sonja Livingston

University of Nebraska Press
 $17.95 Paperback | Buy Now

 

Renee D'Aoust

Renée E. D’Aoust is the author of Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press). Recent book reviews and essays have appeared in Big Other, Fourth Genre, The Rupture, and elsewhere. She teaches online at Casper College and lives in Switzerland. Please visit: www.reneedaoust.com.

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